Saturday night in Inglewood, California, as the crowd inside The Forum at Bellator 263 erupted, 26-year-old A.J. McKee officially arrived as Bellator’s foundational star.
Knocking on the door of superstardom ahead of his championship fight in the finals of the Bellator featherweight Grand Prix, McKee showed off every ounce of potential that’s gotten him to an unblemished 18-0 record. He has finishing power, shown off by his huge left head kick that rocked the former champ, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. Then he cinched on a tight standing guillotine to claim the belt less than two minutes into the first round, showing off his submission skills on the ground or on his feet.
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And as McKee celebrated with a champagne shower inside the cage, Bellator president Scott Coker reflected on the “spectacular” and “electric” championship fight feeling in the Long Beach-native’s backyard.
“He was impressive. I’ve seen Pitbull fight for many years. A.J. did what he had to do, took care of business. Won the tournament, won a million dollars. I think he’s very happy right now,” Coker said in the post-fight press conference. “I think A.J. completely dominated the fight. Pitbull is a great fighter, he’s been a great champion. A.J. is a rising star that became a big star tonight.”
Coker is no stranger to big stars — his promotion has had plenty of them — but McKee is different. He’s not an aging star with his best days in the past. He was brought in as a foundational piece of the Bellator future at just 18 years old and Coker is watching the fruits of his labor blossom into one of the top draws in the world.
McKee’s swagger is off the charts, he has finishing power from anywhere, and Saturday night, he showed how he can sell a fight. Now, it’s all about where Bellator goes from here.
Despite McKee’s struggles to make 145 pounds for the main event — he needed two tries — the new featherweight champion believes he’s not just the best in Bellator, he’s the best in the world.
“Being at 145 pounds isn’t the easiest,” McKee said, via MMA Junkie. “Maybe we get some superfights going but I’m pretty much done with the division at 145 pounds, so hop up to 155 pounds. He’s the best 145-pounder – was the best. I’ve pretty much been saying it. Now people are seeing it and believing it. I am the best 145-pounder in the world whether it’s UFC, ONE FC, PFL, I don’t care who it is.”
In a day and age when seemingly every promotion is vying for cross-promotional superfights, McKee isn’t worried about getting lost in the shuffle. He seems to be just as happy taking a Max Holloway fight as he would be staying in Bellator and trying to become the first fighter to defeat Pitbull twice — albeit likely at 155 pounds.
While he’s certainly not ruling out another bout in the featherweight division, a move to lightweight and a rematch against Pitbull makes the most sense in the immediate term. But regardless of where McKee lands, Coker finally has his homegrown star and someone who appears determined on becoming the transcendent star the promotion has been searching for.